Even though drum ‘n’ bass has been around longer than many other genres of dance music, it’s had a hard time breaking out of the underground circuit. Something about its dizzying drum patterns, breakneck pace and resolutely British flavor have prevented it from reaching radio play in the US, even as other bass-heavy genres like dubstep, trap and electro-house have been embraced at mainstream music festivals.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see Prime packed like sardines on Sunday night to welcome one of the genre’s biggest stars to Boston — Ryan Gosling doppelganger Sub Focus, who has been tearing up dance-floors since the early 2000s with his trademark blend of dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass madness. 2013 in particular has been a watershed year for the DJ, with the release of his album “Torus” generating a slew of hit singles with vocalists like Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, Foxes and Alex Clare. With one eye on the pop charts and the other on the dance floor, Sub Focus could be the guy to break DnB into the mainstream for good.
Kicking off the night was label-mate Delta Heavy, with a caffeinated set that switched from track to track and genre to genre with barely a backwards glance. The DJ was still in recovery mode from a concussion sustained on tour in Colorado last week, but — aside from a painful looking black eye — it was hard to tell. Highlights of his set included the subwoofer-shredding “Bonfire” by Knife Party, Delta Heavy’s own stomping remix of Nero’s “Must Be the Feeling,” and my personal fave, “Workout” by drum ‘n’ bass pioneer Andy C. Opening DJs usually lay the groundwork for the headliner to come in and drop the heavy tracks, but Delta Heavy’s approach was the opposite — to pummel the crowd into submission so that, by the time Sub Focus came on, they’d actually be ready for some more melodic tunes.
Given the sizable stack of vocal tracks that Sub Focus has in his record collection, this was actually a good division of duties. For the first hour of Sub Focus’ set, the DJ dropped hit after hit: “Rock It,” “Holding On,” “Out of the Blue” and the insanely catchy “Tidal Wave,” that had the whole crowd singing along in unison. Cinematic visuals, varying from Tron-like geometric grids to sweeping natural landscapes, offered a perfect complement to the emotive music. Unfortunately Prime was too small a venue to accommodate the DJ’s usually flamboyant stage set up, but the club managed just fine with smoke machines, confetti and a huge LED screen.
Apart from a few judicious stabs of dubstep and a brief-but-painful transition into electro towards the end of the night, Sub Focus’ set was comprised largely of drum ‘n’ bass — and all the better for it. An emcee with a gruff London accent added to the authentic feel; indeed, DnB has the distinction of being one of the few genres of dance music that doesn’t sound really stupid with rap vocals. Sub Focus closed out the night with a series of shimmering, euphoric drum ‘n’ bass anthems, by which point the crowd was in a state of collective ecstasy. It seemed only appropriate that, as fans walked out into the Boston night, they were greeted by the year’s first snowfall. An evening to remember.